Werewolf Wednesday: “The Other Side” by Count Eric Stenbock (1893)

EricStenbock-1-236x300Count Eric Stenbock is remembered primarily for two stories, one about a vampire and the other about werewolves. The former, “The True Story of a Vampire”, is most notable for its overt homosexuality; beyond this, it has little to make it stand out against the likes of Carmilla and Dracuila. Stenbock’s werewolf story, however, is a different matter.

“The Other Side” was published in an 1893 edition of an Oxford literary magazine called The Spirit Lamp. It was possibly influenced by Théophile Gautier’s 1836 story of the vampiress Clarimonde, as both tales depict a character being batted back and forth between a waking world of religious orthodoxy and a dream world of unholy temptations ruled by a beautiful demoness.

Rather than a female vampire, Stenbock uses a female werewolf named Lilith. The werewolf-as-temptress motif was not unusual in the nienteenth century: see also Frederick Marryat’s “The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains” (1839), Sir Gilbert Campbell’s “The White Wolf of Kostopchin” (1889) and Clemence Housman’s “The Were-Wolf” (1890). Even amongst this company, however, “The Other Side” stands out for the weirdness of its imagery.

The story is subtitled “A Breton Legend” and, although I’ve come across a few sources that take this claim at face value, I have yet to confirm whether Stenbock was inspired by any particular folktale when writing. That said, the story clearly has roots in the fevered world of early modern witch-trials, when sorceresses and devils were believed to hold nightmarish rites together. This is the world in which Eric Stenbock locates his werewolves.

“The Other Side” begins abruptly in the middle of a conversation, during which an elderly woman tells the main character (a boy named Gabriel; curiously, also the name of a boy in Stenbock’s vampire story) about black magic:

“Oh, yes, then when they get to the top of the hill, there is an altar with six candles quite black and a sort of something in between, that nobody sees quite clearly, and the old black ram with the man’s face and long horns begins to say Mass in a sort of gibberish nobody understands, and two black strange things like monkeys glide about with the book and the cruets–and there’s music too, such music. There are things the top half like black cats, and the bottom part like men only their legs are all covered with close black hair, and they play on the bag-pipes, and when they come to the elevation, then—” Amid the old crones there was lying on the hearth-rug, before the fire, a boy whose large lovely eyes dilated and whose limbs quivered in the very ecstacy of terror.

We later learn that the main setting of the story is no less colourful than this anecdote. Gabriel lives in a forested area where a brook divides a green, healthy stretch of woodland from a desolate region haunted by demonic beings:

There was a forest and a village and a brook, the village was on one side of the brook, none had dared to cross to the other side. Where the village was, all was green and glad and fertile and fruitful; on the other side the trees never put forth green leaves, and a dark shadow hung over it even at noon-day, and in the night-time one could hear the wolves howling–the were-wolves and the wolf-men and the men-wolves, and those very wicked men who for nine days in every year are turned into wolves; but on the green side no wolf was ever seen, and only one little running brook like a silver streak flowed between.

Gabriel is mocked by his schoolmates for being effete and “pas comme les autres gamins” (“not like other children” — Stenbock, who was likely homosexual, may have been drawing upon personal experience here). While effete, Gabriel is also brave. Upon seeing a beautiful blue flower growing on the other side of the brook, he builds up enough courage to step over into the forbidden area, which turns out to hold long reaches of this alluring blossom. Then, the moonlight that illuminates his path is cut off and a diabolical procession appears:

But on a sudden a black cloud covered the moon entirely, and all was black, utter darkness, and through the darkness he heard wolves howling and shrieking in the hideous ardour of the chase, and there passed before him a horrible procession of wolves (black wolves with red fiery eyes), and with them men that had the heads of wolves and wolves that had the heads of men, and above them flew owls (black owls with red fiery eyes), and bats and long serpentine black things, and last of all seated on an enormous black ram with hideous human face the wolf-keeper on whose face was eternal shadow; but they continued their horrid chase and passed him by, and when they had passed the moon shone out more beautiful than ever, and the strange nightingale sang again, and the strange intense blue flowers were in long reaches in front to the right and to the left.

Before returning home, Gabriel catches sight of a beautiful blonde woman apparently turning into a wolf:

But one thing was there which had not been before, among the deep blue flowers walked one with long gleaming golden hair, and she turned once round and her eyes were of the same colour as the strange blue flowers, and she walked on and Gabriel could not choose but follow. But when a cloud passed over the moon he saw no beautiful woman but a wolf, so in utter terror he turned and fled, plucking one of the strange blue flowers on the way, and leapt again over the brook and ran home.

Back in the village, Gabriel begins exhibiting strange behaviour. He clutches the flower wherever he goes, even to Mass; when the priest says “introibo ad altare Dei” (“Go to the altar of God”) the boy replies “Qui nequiquam laetificavit juventutem meam” (“He who in vain made him glad, joy to my youth”), prompting the priest to look at him in surprise and see his “deadly pale” face. Gabriel then faints to the floor.

Gabriel later shows the flower to a girl named Carmeille, his only friend besides the priest. She finds it disturbing;

“Oh, Gabriel what is this flower? I but touched it and I felt something strange come over me. No, no, I don’t like its perfume, no there’s something not quite right about it, oh, dear Gabriel, do let me throw it away,” and before he had time to answer, she cast it from her, and again all its beauty and fragrance went from it and it looked charred as though it had been burnt. But suddenly where the flower had been thrown on this side of the brook, there appeared a wolf, which stood and looked at the children.

Gabriel recognises the wolf’s blue eyes as belonging to the blonde woman he had seen on his jaunt across the brook. At night, the woman comes to Gabriel’s home, beckoning him to follow her back to the Other Side — which he does:

And as he looked he could see the silvern shadows slide on the limmering light of golden hair, and the strange eyes gleaming dark blue through the night and it seemed to him that he could not but follow; so he walked half clad and bare foot as he was with eyes fixed as in a dream silently down the stairs and out into the night. And ever and again she turned to look on him with her strange blue eyes full of tenderness and passion and sadness beyond the sadness of things human–and as he foreknew his steps led him to the brink of the brook. Then she, taking his hand, familiarly said, “Won’t you help me over Gabriel?”

At this point Stenbock utilises one of the earliest stock situations in werewolf stories: that of an injury inflicted on a wolf remaining in human form. True to form, however, his treatment of this motif is dreamlike and weird:

Then it seemed to him as though he had known her all his life–so he went with her to the “other side” but he saw no one by him; and looking again beside him there were two wolves. In a frenzy of terror, he (who had never thought to kill any living thing before) seized a log of wood lying by and smote one of the wolves on the head. Immediately he saw the wolf-woman again at his side with blood streaming from her forehead, staining her wonderful golden hair, and with eyes looking at him with infinite reproach, she said–“Who did this?”

As Gabriel tends to the woman’s injury, the demonic figure of the “wolf-keeper” returns with his procession and performs something resembling historical depictions of witches’ sabbats:

Again he saw the wolf-keeper with his horrible troupe around him, but this time not engaged in the chase but sitting in strange conclave in a circle and the black owls sat in the trees and the black bats hung downwards from the branches. Gabriel stood alone in the middle with a hundred wicked eyes fixed on him. They seemed to deliberate about what should be done with him, speaking in that same strange tongue which he had heard in the songs beneath his window.

Suddenly he felt a hand pressing in his and saw the mysterious wolf-woman by his side. Then began what seemed a kind of incantation where human or half human creatures seemed to howl, and beasts to speak with human speech but in the unknown tongue. Then the wolf-keeper whose face was ever veiled in shadow spake some words in a voice that seemed to come from afar off, but all he could distinguish was his own name Gabriel and her name Lilith. Then he felt arms enlacing him.

The revelation that the wolf-woman is named Lilith — and may well be the Lilith of demonology — suggests that her male counterpart, the wolf-keeper, is Satan himself. However, Stenbock leaves this matter ambiguous.

After this incident, Gabriel awakes in bed and concludes that these events were just a dream. However, things have changed. A crucifix and other holy items have disappeared from his bedroom; he finds himself physically incapable of making the sign of the cross, and cannot remember his prayers.

Then, looking out the window, he sees not the village at dawn with its beautiful church, but the desolate forest of the Other Side at sunset (intriguingly, though, the house’s interior appears to be the same as his own aside from the lack of holy objects, implying that the Other Side is a mirror image of its green counterpart).

Gabriel’s old existence in the village begins to fade and he feels as though he has lived in the Other Side with the beautiful Lilith for all of his life. He does, however, have his memory jogged when he sees a strange blue flower; Lilith explains that the flower is named “lûli uzhûri” and has soporific properties. He also hears the voices of people from the village praying for his soul. Such prayers are gravely needed, as Gabriel finds himself undergoing a physical transformation:

A change had come over him–what was it? He could not tell–did he walk on all fours? Yes surely. He looked into the brook, whose still waters were fixed as a mirror, and there, horror, he beheld himself; or was it himself? His head and face, yes; but his body transformed to that of a wolf. Even as he looked he heard a sound of hideous mocking laughter behind him. He turned round–there, in a gleam of red lurid light, he saw one whose body was human, but whose head was that of a wolf, with eyes of infinite malice; and, while this hideous being laughed with a loud human laugh, he, essaying to speak, could only utter the prolonged howl of a wolf.

Meanwhile, having failed to find the missing Gabriel, the villagers declare the boy dead and hold a funeral for him (“Their knowledge of other localities being so limited, that it did not even occur to them to suppose he might be living elsewhere than in the village”). The newly-lupine Gabriel hears the dirge being performed, at which point he howls in anguish and makes a dash back to the village, pursued by the denizens of the Other Side:

His cries aroused all the denizens of the forest–the wolves, the wolf-men, and the men-wolves. He fled before them in an agony of terror–behind him, seated on the black ram with human face, was the wolf-keeper, whose face was veiled in eternal shadow. Only once he turned to look behind–for among the shrieks and howls of bestial chase he heard one thrilling voice moan with pain. And there among them he beheld Lilith, her body too was that of a wolf, almost hidden in the masses of her glittering golden hair, on her forehead was a stain of blue, like in colour to her mysterious eyes, now veiled with tears she could not shed.

Gabriel makes it back and has his human form returned, while the priest wards off the wolf-keeper:

Suddenly the whole horrid chase came in sight. Gabriel sprang over the brook, the Abbé Félicien held the most Blessed Sacrament before him, and his shape was restored to him and he fell down prostrate in adoration. But the Abbé Félicien still held aloft the Sacred Ciborium, and the people fell on their knees in the agony of fear, but the face of the priest seemed to shine with divine effulgence. Then the wolf-keeper held up in his hands the shape of something horrible and inconceivable–a monstrance to the Sacrament of Hell, and three times he raised it, in mockery of the blessed rite of Benediction.

The Other Side is destroyed by flame, although the story’s ending is not without ambiguity:

And on the third time streams of fire went forth from his fingers, and all the “other side” of the forest took fire, and great darkness was over all. All who were there and saw and heard it have kept the impress thereof for the rest of their lives–nor till in their death hour was the remembrance thereof absent from their minds. Shrieks, horrible beyond conception, were heard till nightfall–then the rain rained. The “other side” is harmless now–charred ashes only; but none dares to cross but Gabriel alone–for once a year for nine days a strange madness comes over him. 

This last line is a clear allusion to the story’s earlier reference to “very wicked men who for nine days in every year are turned into wolves”. Clearly, Gabriel’s ordeal has left him with after-effects.

So, this is “The Other Side”. Hollywood has established the werewolf as one of the more materialistic of monsters, but this was not always the case. Authors of the nineteenth were prone to making their lycanthropes as intangible, spiritual beings, and Stenbock’s story is a pristine example of this. The weird and repetetive descriptions of “wolf-men and men-wolves”, of “men that had the heads of wolves and wolves that had the heads of men”, of the wolf-keeper seated on hus human-faced ram, have the potential to haunt the imagination long after the brief story is over.

There is one last detail about “The Other Side” that I would like to bring up. At two points in the story, Stenbock uses a language that I have yet identify. The first is when Lilith sings to Gabriel:

Ma zála liral va jé Cwamûlo zhajéla je Cárma urádi el javé Járma, symai,–carmé–Zhála javály thra je al vú al vlaûle va azré Safralje vairálje va já? Cárma serâja Lâja lâja Luzhà!

The second point is the name of the blue flower, lûli uzhûri. I searched online and found a few discussions about this language (this one, for example) but none that were able to conclusively identify it. The language isn’t Breton; and while Stenbock had family connections to both Sweden and Estonia, it is neither Swedish nor Estonian.

Possibly it was made up by Stenbock himself. But the words comprising “lûli uzhûri” have clear similarities to “lily” and “azure”, so he appears to have been working with actual etymology. My best guess — and take this with a grain of salt — is that Lilith’s language is a garbled form of Hungarian.

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